There’s a party atmosphere on Shankill Road. The hot dog vans are out and people spill out of the pubs, waving Union Jacks as hundreds of members of the Protestant Orange Order parade down the road, banging their giant Lambeg drums. Spectators scream themselves hoarse at a group of marchers in black bowler hats and arcane orange sashes.
In this loyalist stronghold of Belfast, remaining part of the United Kingdom is everything. “This is Ulster,” says Roberta McFarlane, 44, a medical secretary. “I wouldn’t say Northern Ireland. That only glorifies Ireland.” She has nothing but scorn for the republicans who want to reunite with the south. “They are our enemies,” she says.
Until this month, mainland Britain gave little thought to the Ulster loyalists. But after a recent election in which Prime Minister Theresa May’s Tories failed to win a majority of parliamentary seats, Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party emerged as kingmakers.
This week, the DUP, which has hardline views on abortion and LGBT rights, struck a deal for its 10 parliamentarians to back the Tories in Parliament in exchange for $1.2 billion in government investments over the next two years. McFarlane, a DUP voter, believes everyone in Northern Ireland — or Ulster, as she prefers to call it — will benefit.
The agreement put Northern Ireland back in the news, but McFarlane still isn’t sure the mainland knows who the Ulster loyalists are.
“They don’t understand how strongly we feel,” she says. “If someone had a knife at the queen’s throat and they told me that if I jumped in front of a car, they’d take away the knife, I would jump. We are so loyal here.”
Above her flies an orange flag for the Shankill Protestant Boys, a flute band, featuring the letters UVF. McFarlane says this is a reference to the Ulster Volunteer Force that fought with the British Army during the Battle of the Somme in 1916. But during the deadly 1968-1998 conflict here, a paramilitary group adopted the same name. Violence by groups like the UVF and the IRA killed more than 3,600 people.
In this city of walls, memories of that bloody sectarian conflict, known as “The Troubles,” run deep on both sides. There are 97 “security barriers and forms of defensive architecture” separating Protestant loyalists and Catholic republicans, according to a 2017 study from the Belfast Interface Project.
Nineteen years on from the Good Friday Agreement, which brought relative peace to the province, McFarlane welcomes the presence of paramilitaries on her turf. “We need the UVF for our survival. We’re surrounded by enemies,” she says. Gone are the days when British soldiers would “protect” loyalist marchers, she says.
It’s a common theme, this feeling of being abandoned by mainland Britain, or rather, by England. “We’re the forgotten people. There’s nobody here to defend us,” says Paul Shaw, 37, owner of the Shankill Historical Society. His shop is doing a roaring trade in flags, bunting and T-shirts celebrating the 1690 Battle of the Boyne, when William of Orange defeated the Catholic King James II.
Back in the present, Shaw wants to see Prince William succeed Queen Elizabeth II. “That’s what we want! Bring back King Billy!” he says.
“I want a ‘hard Brexit,’” he says, meaning Britain should make a clean break with the EU without negotiating a deal first. “I want a hard border that will show the rest of the world that Ulster is not in the Republic of Ireland. I’d welcome that 100 percent.”
Watching the parade on a side road, Henry Neill, 69, declares unstinting loyalty to the crown, despite having been shot in the stomach by the British Army on Shankill Road in 1972. He received 2,000 pounds (around $2,500) in compensation after being cleared of paramilitary activity in 1975. He was furious when the British government started peace talks with republican leaders Gerry Adams and the late Martin McGuinness in the ’90s.
“Ulster is ours, not theirs. [The republicans] have been trying to take my country away from me since 1968. It’s a cert that troubles will start again. If the British government won’t defend us, the UVF will,” he says.
The DUP-Tory deal has sparked fears of a return to the bad old days, with republicans claiming that the UK government will no longer be an impartial broker.
Clare Tate, a 32-year-old member of the Purple Star Band, says these are uncertain times, but that she hopes the two sides can live together. “Shared space can work if people just live and let live,” she says.
Tate loves being a member of the band. It’s everything to her: “country, friendship and family.” But, as a lesbian, she has had to consider her loyalties carefully. She voted for DUP in the election earlier this month, despite the party’s hardline stance on LGBT rights. “They wouldn't allow me to marry my girlfriend, but I voted them to keep out [republican party] Sinn Fein,” she says.
“I want to be loyal to the gay community. But I also want to be loyal to my culture,” she says.
As the party dies down, people make their way down a road littered with trash and broken bottles. These are difficult times for Northern Ireland. At the local level, the province’s power-sharing leadership, established under the Good Friday Agreement, collapsed in March over a green energy scandal. The DUP and Sinn Fein have until Thursday to make amends. If they fail, direct rule from London’s Palace of Westminster is a possibility, which some fear would antagonize republicans and jeopardize the peace process.
However, many loyalists here would welcome direct rule. Take Tamara Stewart, 23, also a member of the Purple Star Band. She views power-sharing in the province as a Trojan horse to Irish reunification.
“If there’s direct rule, it will be much easier,” she says.
“We’ll feel more protected.”
Lorraine Mallinder reported from Belfast, Northern Ireland.